Information, or data, is so fundamental to the world that we often don’t think about it on its own. But when we do take a close look at information, how we transfer it, and how it varies, we get a clearer picture of just how radically we’ve changed the world and what could come from that change.
Stephen Hawking recently wrote a great piece covering why right now is “the most dangerous time for our planet.” He rightfully points out the dangers that inequality and the increasing visibility that technology brings to that inequality poses an existential threat to society.
With all due respect to Mr. Hawking, he is missing a broader trend that is more critical to the health of our civilization: the increasing variance of the underlying information that our society is consuming. We’ve seen stories and anecdotes from our recent election and phrases like a “post-fact” world. But a snapshot view also misses a broader trend and, as a result, misses just how big the threat is.
To look at this, it’s best to start at the beginning and get a brief reminder of what we’re all doing on this planet anyway.
It is a spherical object, blue and green, spinning its way around a star in the corner of a galaxy part of a universe that is larger than any human can reasonably fathom. This is Earth, and on it are trillions of living entities of all shapes and sizes. It is a cesspool of life in such a huge space that is seemingly devoid of any such life anywhere else.
Over the last several thousand years, humans have gone from being a member of this ecosystem to owning it. For now, the world is ours to shape as a dysfunctional hive mind with seven billion or so members. This ownership gives us more responsibility than any of us can rationally comprehend, and there is a non-trivial chance that we may be the stewards of life in our galaxy at this point in time.
As we turn inward to what our species has done so far, the track record is mixed. We’ve flown off this planet. We’ve created laws, entities, and norms to govern ourselves so that most of us live in relative peace. We’ve built towering buildings and amazing structures of all shapes and sizes. But even with all that, we are still killing each other in larger numbers than any of us care to think about. We still have billions of people living in abject poverty. People are oppressing and torturing others every day. We still pollute the planet in a way that carries with it large risks.
There is one area where we have had nothing but a positive trajectory: efficient transfer of information. Life has evolved in a path inexorably linked to better transfer of information or data. At first this was purely done via reproduction of single-celled organisms, but this evolved to become DNA, and these lifeforms eventually evolved to transfer information with communication in addition to reproduction. At first, that communication was done with movements. Then sounds. Then language. Then finally by written word. Even then, the written word wasn’t used efficiently until the printing press was invented in 1440. As many have pointed out, 600 years ago is but a blink of an eye when we look at a cosmic time-frame: our planet is 4.3 billion years old, humans 200,000 years old.
In the last 100 years or so, we’ve done something very exciting yet exceptionally dangerous: we’ve created the technology to spread complex information nearly instantaneously with billions of people. This started with the radio, then moved somewhat predictably toward television, then computers, and then the internet.
Before we go too far – let’s define information transfer. On a global scale it would be measured as the sheer volume of information or data that reaches humanity over a fixed time period.
That’ll be abstract to many, so let’s use an analogy: consider how much water a house uses in a month. There are three different ways that we can increase this if we so desired: we can pump it through the tubes faster, we can build larger tubes, or we can make sure the faucets in the house are turned on for more time each day.
This is the same thing as information transfer: The internet pumps information faster than print ever could. It also acts as a larger tube, as it can transfer videos and audio which store more information per unit of time than text does. Lastly, our faucets (e.g. smart phones or other computing devices) are turned on far longer than a TV or radio ever were. There is more information out there than ever before, and it is showing no signs of slowing down.
As such, it is not hard to see why we now stand at a point where all this information is moving at about the limit that most human brains can handle. It moves at the speed of light and is only limited by how quickly someone can transcribe it on one end and digest it on the other.
Information transfer is, for lack of a better term, important shit. It is important because as a species of life it is our fundamental purpose as life. Without passing on information – whether via genes or memes – we die out.
[An aside: meme isn’t just a quirky picture on the internet. Meme in the classical sense is defined as an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, especially imitation. Importantly, we’ve found memes to be a far more efficient means of passing along information than pure genetics: a comparison to chimps paints a clear picture why.]
But let’s focus on how this all has manifested in our society over the past hundred years. The backstory of how we got there is important because it shows us just how unique we are and what responsibilities we carry given what we know.
To examine it effectively, we need to look back to a simpler time: life before radio. Information was transferred verbally and by print, the most efficient transfer (defined as getting the most information to the most people) being via newspapers. In a world like this, there were a few fundamental rules that kept information in check:
- The ability to share information to a large audience was restricted – only a selection of leaders could declare things, and not everyone could go and write a newspaper article, and all information went through these filters before being shared.
- Transfer of information was slower – by at least one day, often longer, as the information took time to prepare, transfer, and propagate.
Fast forward to today – we’ve obliterated these two constraints we had in place! The advent of radio and television broke the second rule. With those inventions, information could be shared as it came in, or “live,” getting people hooked on the authenticity of seeing an event as it unfolds.
Then the advent of the internet broke the first rule. Within short order – no more than 20 years – we reached our current point where anyone can publish themselves online and share information with millions. This democratization has only quickened the already frenetic pace of transfer as established institutions must to keep up with any blabbermouth with a keyboard if they want to stay relevant.
We now have a system that is democratized and thus is incredibly efficient for transferring information. It’s natural to ask “is this a good thing?” and an initial answer would likely be “yes!” How can a system that makes the transfer of information faster, cheaper, and more open be anything but a good thing? We are fulfilling the fundamental purpose of life by doing so!
I wish the world were that simple, but complex systems don’t have an agenda or intentions – they just act as a shaping mechanism that amplifies and/or redirects existing elements of our collective will.
Looking back at the two factors we’ve altered, there is one result that now sticks out like a sore thumb: we are in the midst of a dramatic increase in the volatility of information.
On it’s face, that doesn’t sound threatening. But think – information serves as the fundamental fabric of our society! Passing it on – via genes or memes – is literally our reason for existing! This is a very big problem.
But “volatility of information” is a very abstract term, so let’s define it for the purposes of this discussion as a combination of three traits about a given subject:
- How much does the information about the subject vary?
- How much does the consumer weight and respond to the information?
- How widespread is the dissemination of the variances?
Taken abstractly, this framework provides some interesting characteristics. First, assume you focus the topics as either of our major presidential candidates in the 2016 election. Both candidates were painted as anything (and everything) between a hero of the people and the person who will literally end the world if elected. People (not surprisingly) weighted the combination of this quite heavily and ended up having very visceral opinions of each. Lastly, the information was widespread: it was ubiquitous nationally for months on end. Taken together, we have a clear case of tremendous volatility of information (VOI).
I’ll note one other characteristic: the lack or dismissal of information in a population does contribute to VOI. Let’s consider two hypothetical cases: 1) 5% of the population is given a secret document proving that Donald Trump is an alien spy sent to plunge us into chaos and make room for our new alien overlords, and 2) 20% of the population decides to apply no weighting to anything the New York Times says. In both cases, we have tremendous volatility. The first case is driven by one group having information that no one else has, the second is driven by public information being weighted at zero by a subset of the population.
Looping back to the alleged drivers of this: democratization and speed, it’s easy to see how these drive a more volatile landscape of information. We can all create information and we can all share it with hundreds or thousands of people – this very article is an example of that. Inevitably this means that our information will be more varied than it was when there were four television channels and your local paper. It means that this variance will reach more people and it will do so almost instantly. And not surprisingly it means that people will weigh the information sources much differently as more data and different data is pumped into their decision engine as this all plays out.
The last point that I’ll make on this is that this path of increasing volatility of is unsustainable. We see this in the world today by looking at simpler systems: a computer with multiple inputs won’t know what to choose, and will error. A body where some cells follow new rules either destroys that cancer or is destroyed by it. Societies are fundamentally more complex systems, but behave similarly: too much variance or malignant inputs will break the system. As such, it may be able to hold out a bit longer, but as a living entity processing information it will ultimately be forced into a more stable state.
To quickly recap: humans have been an incredible success as living beings. We now transfer information more efficiently than any other life-form we know of by tremendous margins. To do that, we use systems that we’ve created: first mass production of print, then radio and TV, now the internet. However, our recent jump to the internet has made information transfer much faster and much more democratic. These factors are driving an increase volatility in the information we consume and translation of that information is diverging and creating the polarization and instability we’re seeing today. That trajectory is unsustainable.
If that weren’t bad enough, we have other mechanisms in both the internet and in our brains that only make this worse: curated feeds or “personalization” feeds us what we want to see, internet economics generate great revenues from that, our brains bias to quick immediate decisions that we are slower to reverse. The list could go on, but you get the point: there are a lot of mechanisms built into this system that we are up against.
If that’s the world today, then where can we end up? As noted – the volatility must subside, it’s just a question of how. Let’s take a look at the three ways this could come about:
First – our worst option: we regress to the point where this volatility becomes mute. Any number of cataclysms, natural or man-made, could bring us back to a place where disparate information is second-in-line to daily survival. This may seem far-fetched, but even when 9/11 happened 15 years ago there was a view shared on the fringes that it was an inside job completed by evil agents working within the government. It’s not hard to imagine a similar event happening today, but with a much larger fracture in terms of both perspectives and virulence. History is full of small events that cause larger ripple. In a world with more volatility, it is easier for any event to create ripples, and for those ripples to build into larger waves.
Another possibility at this point in time is actually that our decisions and squabbles will become irrelevant with the advent of lifeforms with artificial intelligence. At that point, we’d have fundamentally altered the playing field so much that this whole topic will become mute.
From the view of life that we discussed above: namely that life is primarily a vehicle for relaying information, silicon-based life would fundamentally make us carbon-based lifeforms obsolete from an evolutionary perspective. Theorizing on how this would play out and the ethical questions we’d face is a topic for another time. To some this will sound like Science Fiction. But by most estimates this is coming within the next 40 years, so it is close enough to factor into how we view the future. The folks at Wait Buy Why have a great primer as to why everyone should care about this.
But our best option for now is to advance society out of this state before a shock to the system throws us into complete chaos. We have a lot of options and a world of smart people who still desire a good outcome, and many options we can try to use to get there. It is still possible for us to achieve a balance. It won’t be a world where we all agree, but it will be one where we can all comfortably coexist.
Fortunately, we do have a few tools in our toolkit to combat volatility: innovation and regulation. I’ll speak to both in a lens toward how they can mitigate the dystopic view I painted above.
Innovation – we can create new mechanisms to reduce volatility and introduce them into our system. These can, should, and will come from several directions. We can create technological innovations – software or otherwise to unify information, detect flawed information, or encourage discourse that unifies views rather than divides. We can create societal or political organizations that move us more toward common ground. We have many different options, and ultimately many things will be tried over the coming years.
Will we be able to innovate our way out of this one? Potentially. Indeed the path of irrelevance I mentioned above is one such approach: AI or augmentation of human intelligence is a viable way of basically increasing our planet’s capacity to process these increasing volumes (and volatility) of information. Other innovations could take different approaches. Yet banking solely on innovation as a means of solving a crisis is always suspect. Thus, we should talk about regulation.
Regulation – is a broad term, and can mean many different things depending on the agent that is applying the regulation.
Government regulation is one obvious route, but is one that typically does not function well in changing the underlying dynamics of society through direct action. Especially in this case, mandating a government sponsored truth won’t work. Indeed, we’ve already seen this not working across many conspiracy theories and disagreements about underlying facts that we have today.
Societal or self-regulation holds more promise and is, in my mind, the best chance we have to change our trajectory. Innovations can help drive this change, but there needs to be a fundamental social movement toward a common goal of a more unified and ethical dissemination of information.
Social movements like this do happen, and can change opinions in relatively short periods of time. Just 18 years ago, polls showed that 27% of the population approved of legalizing gay marriage in the US. Today that number stands at 55%. How that and many other societal shifts happen is largely still a mystery. Inherent morality, societal pressure, education, and more all play a role in shifting opinions one by one.
We don’t fully understand the dynamics of societal change at a scale of millions or certainly hundreds of millions of people, each acting on their own. All that we do know is what has worked to date: people fighting for what is right, talking to people, and convincing each other one-by-one to take the higher moral ground.
If you’ve reached the end of this, odds are good that you already care about political discourse and it’s importance in shaping our world. Even so, there is always more that we can do and should do. Caring isn’t enough quite frankly. Despite our flaws as a species, we do stand today at the peak morality of our history. But our climb up the moral pyramid is not guaranteed. Seventy years ago people stared down Nazi gun barrels in order to assure our spot would last longer. Thankfully we don’t need to do that, but there are still bad people in this world doing nefarious things, and there is still a higher morality that needs to be protected. That’s a long way of saying this: strive for the truth, strive for what is right, and resist those who stand against these principles.